"There are a lot of records that I love that clearly have a Pro Tools imprint of them that just sound like sh**," answers John Vanderslice, excitedly. Though that last part really goes without saying. If there's anything about which the musician isn't passionate, we certainly haven't discovered it during the hour or so we've been at his Tiny Telephone studio. Talking to Vanderslice is less a conversation than it is immersion therapy in musical enthusiasm. "And these are great bands," he continues. "I actually refrain from being specific because I often know the people that have recorded them, that have mastered them. These are bands operating at the prime of their career. This represents two or three years of their creative thinking and their work, and they're making a five-minute decision to record on this medium versus this medium. It isn't cheaper or more expensive. It's a tragic decision."
Of course, anyone with a passing familiarity with Vanderslice will happily tell you there's one subject about which he's particularly passionate. And indeed, we're currently standing in one of the last remaining shrines to the dying art of analog recording, housed in a shed-like building in an enclave of artist spaces at the end of a quiet San Franciscan side street. When we first arrived, a bit on the early side for a Sunday morning, the former Mk Ultra frontman was beaming beneath a patch of blue dye on platinum-blond hair. It's an expression that won't leave his face for the duration of our stay, even when the conversation turns to Pro Tools, something of a dirty word around the 1,700-square-foot studio, which boasts Wurlitzers, Hammonds and grand pianos. There's an ancient harpsichord, a 1976 Neve 30-channel board, reel to reels and a room full of tape. It's a bit like stumbling into Phil Spector's bomb shelter.
This video originally appeared on Engadget Show episode 43.
Vanderslice bristles a bit when the word "museum" is bandied about to describe the 15-year-old space, but he ultimately concedes. If it is, indeed, a museum, it's one with a packed time card. "I'm very well aware that we're running kind of a museum here," answers Vanderslice. "But the reason why we've been sold out is that the end results are so powerful. [Analog equipment is] so overwhelmingly better than what's available in the digital world now that it keeps us busy."
It's a passion that's been burning in the musician since long before the analog / digital recording debate hit a fever pitch. "I grew up listening to, like, prog and Pink Floyd and The Who, and of course I was a huge Zombies and Beatles and Kinks obsessive. So I knew the power of, like, locational recording. I mean I just kept seeing the same studios pop up over and over again on these records, and Led Zeppelin was another huge band for me. So I knew that the only way I'd be able to provide cover for this kind of insane expenditure was to open a business."
Tiny Telephone was born as a co-op in 1996 -- nine people went in on the $660 rent, slowly amassing a collection of suitable equipment. The co-op, ultimately, would dissolve, leaving Vanderslice to run the place in its early, cobbled-together state. "It was just a bunch of, like, drywall and microphone cables," he says. "It was $100 a day, and our first client was Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 -- a local band on Matador. They booked the studio for 30 days, and it gave me this idea that it was feasible and logical. That was my first mistake. I had this fantastic booking [and it] kind of like baited me into this lifelong studio ownership racket."
Vanderslice has taken the sort of hands-on approach to running Tiny Telephone's day-to-day needs in a manner seldom seen amongst fellow musicians, a fact he attributes to the entrepreneurship that runs in his family -- and his own economics degree. "I'm an industrious dude. I like the day-to-day operations. I like the pressure and the reality of, like, supply and demand curves," Vanderslice explains. "I want to make money, but the overarching goal was to really have a cover to make the kind of albums I really wanted to make."
The singer took to Kickstarter for his most recent efforts -- the album Dagger Beach and a full-length cover of David Bowie's glammy Diamond Dogs. The projects hit the crowdfunding site on March 21st, and managed to earn roughly four times its modest $18,500 goal -- a feat he doubts he'll be able to achieve the next time around. "I don't know if I can do this again in 18 months," Vanderslice explains. "You know, there's this crazy major-label rush now on Kickstarter, so I felt I was in this window that was very lucky, and I basically priced that." It was a decision that allowed the musician to cut ties with his most recent label -- a move he felt necessary, given the nature of his new songs. "I just woke up one day, maybe November or October, and I was making what I felt to be like a pretty weird and abstract album," he says. "I knew that I didn't want to be on a label anymore, and it had nothing to do with Dead Oceans. It was like I wanted to make something, like, totally unfiltered, and I didn't want to get pushback for anything."
And like most things in his universe, the funding model can also be traced back to Vanderslice's obsession with fidelity. "No label would ever do [it] because its costs are insane," he says, with a touch of humility. "I wanted to do 200-gram pressings of all the vinyl; I wanted to offer digital downloads of everything in five different formats; and that was very important for me -- FLACs WAVs, you know, two variable-bitrate and 320kbps [versions]. Not password-protected and doesn't expire. So my server has all of the Diamond Dogs record and Dagger Beach in all these formats. It's not password-protected. Once you're in, you can give the link to someone else -- fair use."
If you can't control the eventual piracy of your music, the least you can do is attempt to maintain its fidelity. "If someone steals your record, it's because they're not going to pay 10 bucks for your record. It's out there. So I want to make stuff; I want to be able to control the resolution if that's going to happen. Do you know what I mean? I'm like a parent that's accepted that my son is smoking marijuana, and so I'm, like, providing him with some high-quality stuff from my dispensary."
Ultimately, however, even that's out of the artist's control, of course. The fidelity and method of listening are up to the listener, no matter how much time a musician spends slaving away in the analog mines. But true to his audio obsessions, Vanderslice eschews the old Motown model of making music for car stereos. "It'd be like writing a novel and wondering how dumb people were that were going to read it or how illiterate or how uneducated or just how, just flat-out dull as a person they are," he says. "You can't create art in that way. You cannot worry for a second about anything downstream."
The digital revolution has also brought with it an explosion in home recording. The best way to compete with it, Vanderslice explains, is to not compete with it at all. "Anything that is pro-democracy is fantastic," he says. "Studios should embrace that people have complete autonomy. The only thing that studios should be interested in doing is providing stuff that people can't get at home. I mean do drug dealers stand on a corner selling you like Robitussin? No. You have to be, like, providing something that people can't get."
And for Vanderslice, that service is top-of-the-line audio recording. "I own five Studer A827s, which are the last tape deck to be made," he says. "They're Swiss-made. Came off the line in 2002. They were $78,000. They don't sound nearly as good as my Ampex at home, but this is like a brand-new Mercedes, you know what I mean? Or it's like a new Sprinter touring van. You can't tour in some '67 Dodge van, you know. But these destroy Pro Tools. I mean they just sound so much better. It's just [that] it sounds much more like the throughput. It sounds much more like what's happening in this room, and so it's not that analog improves everything. It's just that digital right now sucks."